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The Path to Purchase: A Customer’s Journey

Updated: Oct 22, 2019

When a customer purchases a product, most people see this as the end goal. The importance of “the sale” is so highly regarded that the sales guys are usually seen as the rock stars of the company with marketing as the humble sidekick who takes less credit. 

However, that “sale”, is just one step in a sequence of decisions a customer goes through. Now we’re not downplaying the importance of sales here. Sales will forever be vital to the bottom line of a company. What we are trying to say is that in order for customers to get to the sale in the first place, they must first go through each of the steps in what is known as The Path to Purchase. The Path to Purchase is a marketing model that has been around for more than a century in different forms. 

The most popular model is the AIDA model developed by Elias St. Elmo Lewis in 1898. For those of you who were asleep during marketing class, AIDA is simply an acronym that stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. These were the steps proposed by St. Elmo that a typical customer goes through before making a purchase decision. The concept is a solid one and it is still relevant in today’s marketing landscape. 

A more modern take on the Path to Purchase model was developed by the consulting firm Mckinsey & Company. They propose that the path to purchase is circular with four phases. 

As marketers, we need to understand the customer’s journey and how he passes through each phase (as described by Insignia, a US-based in-store marketing solutions company) before making his decision. Having a strong marketing strategy for each of these four phases largely determines who will win in the so called “battle of the brands “

Phase 1: Needs and Wants

The path to purchase begins with identifying a need to satisfy. It could be anything, from basic human needs (e.g. food, clothing, and shelter) to more psychological and fulfilling needs (love, prestige, and creativity). Once a need is determined, and a product is created to serve that need, marketers must now create a demand through advertising channels. Customers can’t want you if they don’t know you exist. 

Now this is accomplished in a variety of ways. You can advertise with traditional media (print, broadcast, and billboards) or new age media (social media, email, and mobile). Whatever channel you choose, the goal is the same: become the top of mind choice among consumers for that specific product category. 

To accomplish this monumental feat, marketers must know exactly who their customers are by developing a customer persona. This is an image that represents the people whose needs they are trying to satisfy. Once a solid customer persona is developed, they must create a connection with them both online and offline. Find out what their potential customers are interested in, what websites do they go to, where do they hang out, what do they do for fun. Successful marketers develop a strong presence in all these aspects of their target market’s life so that when the time comes to make a purchase decision they are more likely to remember you.

Phase 2: It's All About Choice

By choosing the best media and advertising to reach your target market, you have now become a top of mind choice. Great job but you’re work has just begun. Now, a prospect is ready to buy, and begins doing research on the different products competing in your space. This part of the process becomes more difficult to control since a prospect has a number of sources he can get his information from. Unfortunately for marketers, they can’t directly control all of the information each source provides. When trust has not yet been established between a customer and a brand via loyalty (more on that in a bit), customers rely on sources that they feel are trustworthy.

Topping the list of these sources are recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues. Word of mouth advertising, especially from a well known source, is a very powerful tool that marketers must work hard to influence.  They can do this by consistently providing excellent customer experiences with their products. The better their product performs, the more satisfied customers will be and the more likely they would recommend your brand to their peers. However, if a product does not meet set standards, then a disgruntled customer could do some considerable damage to a brand especially with the advent of social media at his disposal.

Another influential source that customers get information from is the media. Press releases on your company’s products, both good and bad, can strongly influence a customer’s decision. At the tail end of this list are the sources where marketers do have control. Your online presence and advertising messages are also sources of information that customers look through in weighing the benefits of your product versus similar products on the market. 

Regardless of where your customers get their information, as marketers, we need to be aware of what is being said about us and what we are telling our prospects. The goal is to have one cohesive message across all sources that clearly tell our prospects what they can expect with our products. While that may be difficult to achieve, that does not excuse marketers from trying. The key is to remain consistent in the messaging we deliver and meeting the expectations that we set. 

Phase 3: The Point of Purchase

After much research, the customer has made up his mind and has decided to make a purchase. He drops by the local grocery store and heads for your product’s section. Curtains are up and it’s show time! You’re sitting back comfortably in your chair confident that your product will be chosen because you were able to remain top of mind and had favorable reviews from different online sources. He picks out your product from the shelf and immediately heads to the counter to cash in. Success! But wait...

On his way to the counter he spots an attention grabbing kiosk with your competitor’s product being advertised front and center. He stares curiously at this new product for a few seconds and in a blink of an eye, decides to buy this product instead. What just happened here?

Proctor and Gamble came up with a term for this scenario known as The First Moment of Truth. This is where a consumer is at the point of sale deciding whether or not to purchase a specific brand or product. Studies done on in-store marketing have shown that 76% of purchase decisions are made when customers are inside the store. This finding is very significant for marketers because it shows that it is crucial to have a sound strategy for in-store marketing to avoid lost sales.

In-store marketing is executed in a variety of ways. Some notable ones are store displays, product packaging, and in-store audio advertising. Whatever tool marketers decide to go with, they must always remember that it should be in line with their overall strategy. The key to an effective marketing campaign is how well connected all your strategies are. If for example, you update the packaging of your product your consumers see on the shelves, but haven’t changed it in your media messaging, you’ve got a problem. Such subtle disconnects could spell disaster for you overall marketing plan.

Phase 4: Loyalty

The last step in the Path to Purchase is Customer Loyalty. How does one go about converting first time customers into long time loyalists? The answer is simple: consistently provide them with an excellent customer experience. Satisfying the customer creates brand loyalty which leads to positive word-of-mouth and perpetuates the cycle. Once customers find that they enjoy using your product they no longer need to rely on information gathering. They already have all the information they need from their experience with your product. Customer loyalty is an invaluable asset that must constantly be nurtured. In doing so, you make brand evangelists out of your customers who spread the word of how wonderful your product is. Word of mouth advertising is one of the most powerful forms of marketing and best of all, it’s free! However, create dissatisfaction and your brand loses not only the one dissatisfied customer, but also any other potential consumers who hear his unfavorable opinion. 

Besides providing excellent customer experience, marketers can also engage in the following activities to further promote customer loyalty:

Ask for Feedback Find out directly from your customers what they think about your brand and your product. They may have a range of opinions but these insights could provide you with some golden nuggets into the next breakthrough that will surely delight and surprise your customers.

Turn a Bad Situation Around Research has shown that successfully responding to negative feedback can actually boost customer loyalty. It shows customers that you care about them. People tend to connect more with brands who show a semblance of a human personality. They feel that your intentions as a brand are genuine and sincere unlike those multinational corporations who are only concerned about making money.

Create Consumer Billboards Here’s where brands can get creative. Multiple marketing campaigns have encouraged customers to actively advertise products in exchange for something of value.

So there you have it, a complete map of the customer’s journey. Unlike typical journeys, this one does not have a clear start and end point. Rather, it is a cycle that goes on and on and changes with the times. Marketers must be aware of these changes and continuously adapt in order to keep this cycle alive. It is certainly no easy task, but such is what it takes to earn and keep a happy customer.

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